Genetic risk is the likelihood that a person has a gene mutation that puts them at an increased risk for cancer. Genetic risk assessment determines your personal risk for cancer based on your family medical history. Having a history of cancer in the family doesn’t always mean that the cancer is hereditary. Only a small number of cancers are related to inherited gene mutations. Genetic testing may be done after genetic risk assessment to identify if there is a gene mutation.
Talk to your doctor if you have close relatives (parents, brothers, sisters or children) who have ever been diagnosed with cancer and you are concerned about you or your children having an increased risk.
Genetic risk assessment is often done by genetics specialists (medical geneticists) and by genetic counsellors. A consultation typically starts with a detailed discussion about your medical history and your family history of cancer. The genetics professional also assesses whether or not you need genetic testing to confirm or rule out a genetic condition. Speaking with a genetics professional can be helpful, even if testing for a specific condition is not available.
During a genetic risk assessment, you will be asked about relatives in your family who had cancer. People are often asked to go back through as many generations as possible (usually 3 generations) on both sides of the family (the mother’s and the father’s side). The genetics professional needs to collect as much information as possible about the type of cancer your relatives had and their ages when they were diagnosed. This is called a pedigree (family tree) analysis. A relative’s medical records are often needed to confirm the cancer diagnosis. You may need to contact health facilities for this information. Genetic counsellors may be able to help you collect this information by giving you the necessary consent forms to release the medical records.
Once the family tree for cancer history is done, the genetics professional studies (analyzes) the information to see if you qualify for genetic testing, counselling or a special research study. Genetic counsellors give you information about your genetic risk and suggestions for future action. They also provide support and follow-up. You may meet with other healthcare professionals too.
You should be aware of the issues around genetic risk assessment and genetic testing. These issues are different for each person.